Review – Jim Henson: The Biography

A "behind-the-strings" examination of the man who made Muppets, magic, mayhem, and more.

Jim Henson cover

Overview

Synopsis Creator. Inventor. Performer. Writer. Boss. Friend. Husband. Father. Brian Jay Jones unpacks Jim Henson’s multi-faceted life, from his childhood in Leland, Mississippi, up through his continent-spanning career. Readers explore his career in-depth in a biography that details Henson as a puppeteer, creator of the Muppets, director of films such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, and perhaps most importantly, a genuinely loving individual.

Author Brian Jay Jones
Publisher Ballantine Books
Genre Biography

Length 608 pages

Release Date May 10, 2016

“Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?”

For nearly 52 years, children around the globe have tuned in to the educational antics of the Sesame Workshop’s colorful characters. Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, and many other characters have featured prominently in the lives of youngsters (and their parents) for decades. The brainchild of Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, Sesame Street harnesses the widespread power of television and enraptures kids with its powerful messages, engaging lessons, and whimsical characters.

Yet there would be no Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar, Bert, or Ernie without Jim Henson. Likewise, Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Jen the Gelfling, even Yoda of Star Wars fame, would be pieces of untouched felt if not for Henson’s creativity. Brian Jay Jones, in his New York Times bestselling biography, chronicles the life of James “Jim” Maury Henson, from his humble beginnings through his meteoric rise as a creator, performer, and gifted storyteller.

Jim Henson and Muppets

Henson with several Muppets, including Kermit the Frog, Dr. Teeth, Rowlf the Dog, and the hecklers Statler and Waldorf

Content Guide

Violence: We are told a man commits suicide. Several of Henson’s skits and commercials contain violence against puppets: explosions and the like. One man dies in a car crash; another man is injured in a different crash. Kids are accidentally run over by a car but suffer no major injuries.

Sexual Content: A man is said to have first noticed his future wife via her legs. One of Henson’s performers is openly gay. A man is described as being “fast” in high school. A husband, while legally separated from his wife, pursues intimate relationships with several other women. Among Henson’s ideas for characters and skits are an androgynous puppet and a show titled “Sex and Violence.” As a practical joke, Henson pitches an X-rated film to another man. Another puppeteer performs a racy show. References are made to double entendres. And, of course, a Muppet frog loves a Muppet pig.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Several people drink at various social gatherings. We are told Henson tried an LSD sugar cube, though suffered no ill effects. Some people smoke.

Spiritual Content: Henson came from a religious background. Some family members were involved in ministry or attended church, and others followed Christian Science. At least one relative was nonpracticing. Henson removed himself from organized religion, choosing to embrace a generally positive view towards mankind. He was respectful towards other religions, however. Someone is called a “cross between Abe Lincoln and Jesus.” Someone hopes to see all their friends in the afterlife. Someone is said to work through a deal “Solomon-like,” referencing the Biblical story of King Solomon and the two mothers. A person meditates.

Language/Crude Humor: “Blue sky!” Sesame Street director Jon Stone shouted whenever a child stepped on to the set – a friendly reminder to showmen not to swear in the presence of their special guest. Off-camera, however, such reminders don’t exist. People, either in anecdotes or quoted by Jones, let loose a litany of profane words. God and Jesus’ names are abused a handful of times, and h***, d***, a**, and b**** appear, as do several utterances of s*** and f***. Someone refers to Henson’s characters as the “mucking Fuppets.”

Other Negative Content: People get into heated debates over disagreements. Some are unwilling or unable to see other points of view. Occasionally, individuals try to force agendas on other people.

Positive Content: Henson and Associates are driven by their dreams – using their work medium to truly inspire and make the world a better place. Henson genuinely loves his children, taking them on vacations and spending quality time with them. He treats guests and friends well, not just to maintain a reputation, but out of sincere gratitude. A man takes care of his daughter who suffers from cystic fibrosis; someone generously covers her medical expenses. Henson establishes a foundation to assist burgeoning performers.

And who can forget Henson, as Kermit the Frog, attempting to help a little girl with her ABCs?

Review

For years, Jim Henson tried convincing interviewers, reporters, and the general public of two things: 1. Puppets weren’t just children’s entertainment and 2. Henson wasn’t just “the Muppet guy.” Brian Jay Jones strives to prove those exact same points… and he generally succeeds.

Henson is presented as an eccentric creator whose tastes and talents went beyond the characters into whom he breathed life. Jones never shies away from Henson’s role with the Muppets – as creator of the rowdy gang of puppets, as performer for several characters, as movie director, as writer – but he offers a fuller picture of the man. Through Jones’ prose, you discover someone who wasn’t just passionate about his art but who lived for it. Henson was one of the rare people who decided early on what he wanted to do and was able to spend most of his waking time pursuing that dream. As one individual is quoted as saying, Henson wasn’t working – he and his company were playing.

Jones takes great pains to discuss, sometimes in engrossing detail, the new techniques Henson developed in puppeteering, the latest filmmaking gadgets that fascinated him, the performers and stars who inspired him. Henson is three-dimensional, presented as a man with hopes and dreams, who experienced loss and failure, who wrestled with the world around him.

Jim Henson Labyrinth

Jim Henson on the set of “Labyrinth”

More than Muppets

Thematically, Jones never lets you forget some integral Henson personality traits. When he wasn’t making shows or movies, Jim Henson the father was taking his five children on vacation. When he wasn’t dividing his time between New York and London studios, Jim Henson the adventurer skied. When he wasn’t touring America promoting a new film, Jim Henson the car enthusiast enjoyed his latest automobile purchase. Or maybe Jim Henson the home decorator imagined how his newest apartment was going to appear. Perhaps Jim Henson the writer filled reams of paper with story ideas or his innermost thoughts. Jones weaves these and other familiar elements as the backbone of Henson’s character, stringing together a series of traits that keeps the subject both relatable and intimate in the reader’s mind. Henson was productivity personified – always on the go, always looking for the next thing to do.

Jones’ thematic elements never feel repetitive. Though he goes into detail recounting Henson’s first ski trip, future trips are mentioned more briefly. The author offers a brief snapshot of recurring events, triggering familiarity in the reader before moving on. That’s right, Henson enjoyed skiing, I noted, mentally flipping back to Jones’ first reference. Each anecdote enhances your understanding of Henson; each theme grounds him in your imagination, adding another dimension of personality and depth.

Jim Henson family

Jim Henson, his wife Jane, and their children

A Colorful Cast of Characters

Jones likewise dedicates a good chunk of time to the people with whom Henson interacts, serving as “subplots” or “supporting cast members” in the story. Present from the start of Henson’s career, Jane Henson morphed from an assistant to a partner, to wife. One of Jones’ best sections features an examination of Jim and Jane’s personalities, a carefully thought-out dissection of how and why the two were so different and how those differences impacted their long relationship. Frank Oz became one of Henson’s first hires, joining the fledgling company out of high school and remaining through thick and thin. Jones quotes him frequently, Oz’s often foul mouth navigating currents of praise and critique. Various other Muppeteers came and went, especially as Henson’s business grew and his work began spanning continents. Jones is adept at wielding his cast effectively, whether it’s reporting on tumults between different studios or offering anecdotes describing Henson’s love and appreciation for his staff.

As each character wanders in and out of Henson’s life story, Jones devotes a decent amount of time describing how those individuals were impacted by Henson and grew as a result. Oz, who once swore off any kind of voice acting, eventually performed voices for Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Yoda. Henson’s son Brian joined his father in the “family business” and become a director himself, filming movies such as The Muppet Christmas Carol. Julie Taymor, a recipient of one of the first grants distributed by the Jim Henson Foundation, later developed the successful Lion King Broadway musical. Henson’s impact, Jones carefully notes, stemmed beyond Muppets. He shaped family and friends, including people he never even met. People changed when they met Jim Henson, oftentimes for the better.

Jim Henson, David Bowie, George Lucas

Jim Henson, David Bowie, and George Lucas

Some Threads Come Undone

Jones is just as careful in balancing Henson’s successes and failures. Henson and Co. reached the zenith of pop culture success with the Muppet Show and subsequent movies. However, the box office failings of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth proved even Jim Henson and his stable of witty writers and performers were not untouchable. As Henson shaped the world, the world impacted him. Praise and criticism alike directed the man’s steps and decisions, from outside sources and inward voices. Jones not only records reactions from friends and family but reprints Henson’s words themselves, allowing unique insight into Henson’s view on his own career. Jones’ ability to present Henson’s wins and losses speaks volumes about the biographer’s admiration for the master puppeteer.

Even Jones’ portrayal gets its strings tangled every once in a while. At moments, I struggled with one area of Jones’ insistence. Henson’s nonchalance. When a burglar broke into his car and stole some belongings, Henson shrugged the issue off and hoped the thief would make the best use of the property; clearly, someone else needed the stuff more than Henson did. Perhaps Jones simply describes the situation poorly, but Henson’s reaction comes across as more thoughtless than considerate.

When describing how Henson cheated on his wife, Jones skirts the moral dilemma Henson’s proclivities creates. If anything, Jones notes that when news of the affairs leaked, Henson’s only response was how his studio would be impacted. Henson’s distress wasn’t financial – he was more concerned for the reputation of his staff – and it didn’t come across as selfish. But Jones doesn’t mention how Henson figured his actions affected his wife and children or whether or not the affairs were moral. That argument is never brought up.

Jim with Jen

Jim with Jen, the Gelfling protagonist of “The Dark Crystal”

Balanced as his portrayal is, Jones defends Henson where he shouldn’t. The biographer explains Henson’s reasoning behind his affairs, expressing them as calculated decisions rather than moral pitfalls, without giving weight to the emotional fallout. In some cases, Jones resorts to a shoulder-shrugging “Jim being Jim” reasoning that brushes off some of the responsibility Henson should have taken for his actions. If Jones’ objective, for example, was to show how lovingly merciful Henson was by accepting a man breaking into his car, I was not convinced. Henson’s “he needed it more than I” argument seemed more oblivious or indifferent than kind or intentional.

I wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell you why Jones is okay covering Henson’s financial, filmmaking, or personnel failings while glossing over some of his personal missteps. Jones is laser-focused on making sure the reader understands Henson’s worldview, one where love and kindness reign supreme. Unfortunately, his take on Henson’s affairs and occasional moments of indifference hurt the biographer’s argument, especially when Jones fails to attribute those moments to Henson’s flawed humanity. I never wanted Jones to maliciously tear Henson down, but I felt an acknowledgement of some kind would have been pertinent.

Jim Henson and Muppeteers

Henson with some of his top Muppeteers

“My hope is to leave the world a little better for having been there.” 

Jones addresses some of Henson’s failings inadequately, but even those moments do little to take away from the beauty of Jim Henson’s story. The man’s imagination drove him, and those around him, to embrace their gifts and talents, to push themselves, to dedicate their best efforts to the craft, and to strive constantly for improvement. Henson was not an overly religious man. Instead, he chose to maintain a more generalized “love everyone” view that seemed based on biblical philosophies without surrendering to Christian principles. Yes, he may have missed the mark when it came to faith, but Henson was nevertheless genuine in expressing care and concern for the people around him.

“[Jim] wasn’t a saint,” the late Muppeteer Richard Hunt noted, “but he was as close as human beings could get to it.” In the eyes of Hunt and others, Henson wasn’t perfect… but he was also real. Honest. Kind. True. It’s quite the legacy to leave behind, perhaps more impactful than the characters he painstakingly created. Jim Henson was the kind of man who never let his left hand know what his right hand was doing… and, sometimes, that was just because his right hand was wearing a frog.

Positives

+ Strong argument for a well-rounded Jim Henson
+ Multi-faceted examination of Henson's world and associates
+ Clear guide to Henson's impact on the people around him

Negatives

- Nonchalant portrayal of Henson's personal failings
- Some rough language

The Bottom Line

Brian Jay Jones establishes a definitive look at Henson's life, beautifully examining a man whose creativity and kindness ran uninhibited.

 

Story/Plot 10

Writing 9.5

Editing 9

9.5

Nathan Kiehn

Nathan has loved comic books and graphic novels for as long as he can remember, ever since his father handed him a digest sized volume of "Marvel Age: Spider-Man." He's dedicated a lot of time and effort to exploring the far reaches of the Spider-Verse, but he's also been known to dive into other corners of the Marvel Universe and maybe even stuck his nose in a Batman story arc or two (just don't tell Spidey).

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